Writing insights from a puppy

puppyOn Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife Toni and I drove to nearby Columbus to meet four delightful Shetland Sheepdog puppies (responsibly bred…not from a puppy mill).

Toni had been craving another canine companion in the house for some time, but didn’t think that I would approve. After all, I work from home, am closely attached to the pooch we already have, and she didn’t think I’d want to mess with training a newcomer all day. Much to her surprise, I had already made up my mind before we left home that she’d be getting something more than a box of chocolate and the new Austenland DVD this year.

That evening we drove home with a new family member, who we’ve dubbed “Tilney,” the sweetest little 3.4 pound ball of fur you’ve ever seen. (Okay, maybe I’m slightly biased.) He was just seven weeks old the next day, so everything about his world was fresh and new.

I don’t remember much of anything from the time I was seven weeks old, so I can only imagine what it must be like for Tilney to be seeing the world for the first time. Some things make him anxious, like the vacuum cleaner, while others—notably Bingley, our adult pooch—excite his eager curiosity. But in either case he’s jumping into our lives with only seven weeks of experience to use as a frame of reference. What must the world look like through his eyes?

Tilney’s arrival also means I can’t take anything for granted for a while. I’m used to sharing my office with Bingley, a dog who already knows how to sit, stay, and let me know when he needs to go outside. Adorable as he is, Tilney still has most of that learning curve ahead of him—a fact I need to remember even as his training begins.

So what does all this have to do with writing (apart from blatant nods to characters from Jane Austen novels)?

When you reach out to new prospects—whether you’re promoting your business, introducing a new product, or expanding your audience—it’s a lot like trying to communicate with a newborn puppy. Some will know you by reputation, but many more will know nothing about you. The messaging you use to introduce yourself can excite their interest, turn them away, or (less common in puppies) leave them feeling uncertain about whether or not you’re right for them.

Your approach can be different when you’re dealing with people who already know you—your existing clients, prospects you’ve already had some contact with, or even people who are likely to know about you from high-profile projects. These readers already have a frame of reference that you can draw upon to build a more sophisticated message.

When it comes to totally new readers, though, you need to think like a puppy. You can’t assume that they’ll know the jargon you’ve lived with throughout your career, be familiar with the technology you use, or understand the significance of current events on your business. This doesn’t mean you should talk down to your prospects. Simply think of them as intelligent people who don’t have as much information as you do.

Prospects who are unfamiliar with you also won’t care about behind-the-scenes pressures that affect you, especially deadlines for other clients or your pet peeves about minutiae in your field. (Hint: Many of your long-established clients don’t care about these things either.) Save that stuff for conversations with your industry peers or close friends.

The key to mastering “puppy’s mind” is to ask yourself what’s in it for the puppy. Your message should have a single goal…to encourage the reader to take the next step in your action chain. That can be clicking through to your website, placing an order, or giving you a call. Cut everything else. Focus on what will encourage your prospects to take action, and they’ll be far more likely to join the big dogs on your client list.

  5 Reasons to Outsource Your Marketing

lab-icnIf you’re like many creative people, marketing is the last thing you want to spend time on. Paid gigs, shooting or designing personal work, editing images, doing taxes, and other business tasks usually seem a lot more urgent.

The trouble is if you don’t do marketing — especially when you’re busy — you’ll eventually have far too much time for marketing. That’s because you won’t have any work.

Luckily, you don’t have to do it all yourself. There are many great reasons to outsource marketing tasks to someone who lives and breathes in that world.

Read more at The Lab Blog.

  Copy tips designers love

Antique-penOr, how a good writer can save time for the design team

A good copywriter is the lyricist to the designer’s visual “music,” but things can quickly get out of tune when writers commit common mistakes—most of which are easily avoided. This is a secret of the writer’s art that most designers understand better than many writers.

Things were less of an issue before computers came along. So long as the writer had legible handwriting or was competent with a typewriter, the opportunities to create mayhem for the design team were fairly limited. As progress marched on, however, both arts became dominated by software, where what’s below the surface can easily interfere with what you ultimately want to see on the printed page or the screen.

The difference between a writer who plays well with designers and one who does not largely depends on how well the former understands the latter’s workflow. So here, in no particular order, is a quick list of stuff any wordsmith can do to save his design counterparts a great deal of time and frustration:

  • Talk to the design team as early as possible. This is especially important if you’re working on a tight deadline, which is much of the time. It’s critical if the timing is so short that the design team is building the visual pieces at the same time the writer is creating the copy. If the writer is doing footnotes and sidebars for a page that’s intended to be viewed on smartphones, you’ll probably have some editing to do. Will the designers want text that will appear in pull quotes? Frequent headlines? Images or infographics with captions? Share as much information as possible up front.
  • Who’s on first? Does the copy need to fit an existing design or template, or will the design be shaped by the copy? How much wiggle room does the workflow permit if someone has an out-of-the-box idea? Your mileage may vary, but I find that the most effective process is for the design team to start with a wireframe, grayscreen prototype, or other mockup which gives the writer guidance on how the copy will be experienced visually. This allows the writer to craft copy that fits the concept before the design team does their heavy lifting, which in turn can be shaped by the style and tone of the copy. Sometimes the design team looks to the writer to suggest a direction in the initial draft or two, which is also fine as long as you don’t have a specific outcome in mind right away.
  • Use style sheets. Designers love writers who understand style sheets and loathe those who do not. Whether the end product will appear in print, on the web, or both, using style sheets correctly will give the design team the freedom to try out options and make changes very quickly. Your copy doesn’t need to be in the same typefaces that the designers will use—in fact it doesn’t have to look anything like the finished product. As long as you use them consistently, your designers can map your styles to theirs. Better yet, if you learn how your team likes to use styles and create copy files that follow the same practices, you’ll unleash them to focus on the more creative side of their work. Design teams who know how to play well with writers often provide Microsoft Word or other word-processor templates with the styles they want writers to use pre-created. It may take a little effort to build the template and train your writers, but it pays everyone back very quickly.
  • Agree on as much other formatting as possible before writing starts. Does the writer need to use Chicago style, AP style, Grammar Girl style, or the CEO’s style? Will typesetter’s quotes be converted automatically or should the writer make sure they appear in the source file? Which side of the great comma-series debate do you fall on? (It’s a brutal battle that rages on, even today.) Are there certain words that must never, ever, EVER, be used to describe the product? If you’ll be doing a lot of work together, consider creating a style guide.
  • Don’t create stuff the designer will have to un-create. The two most classic examples of this behavior are typing a zillion periods to create dotted lines for a table of contents, or a zillion spaces to create manual columns. Both are guaranteed to make designers roll their eyes at best, and incite them to violence at worst. There are many more sins like this, too numerous to name here, but any time you think you’re making your document “press ready” by doing a bunch of keyboard gymnastics, check with the design team first to find out if they’d prefer it done differently. Just trust me on this one.
  • One space after sentences. Once upon a time, there was a marvelous new invention called a typewriter. Everyone who worked on a typewriter learned to put two spaces between sentences. That’s because typewriters used characters that were all the same width, and the extra space made it easier to read typewritten text. Technology has moved on. Now designers use software that not only allows letterforms of different widths, but automatically calculates the correct amount of kerning (designer-speak for the optimum space between any given character pair) and sentence spacing, adjusting it to the nth degree. When you type the old-fashioned way, you throw a wrench into all this high-tech assistance, making the copy look strange in a way that disturbs readers, even though they may not know why. Designers will curse your name as they hunt down all these extra spaces with the Find-and-Replace command, which can be especially vexing if they do so before they notice all those columns you shouldn’t have created with manual spaces.
  • Extra returns between paragraphs? Paragraph breaks are often easier on the eyes if there’s some space in between blocks of text, but don’t assume that the design team wants you to create that space by hitting the Return key twice after every paragraph. A single return gives the designer more control over the exact amount of space, which may need to be less than a full line break. Ask ahead of time which format your designer prefers.
  • Know your team’s policy on soft returns too. “Soft” returns are forced line breaks created with the key combination Shift + Return. Web designers also call them “breaks.” Typically, they force the copy to start on a new line after the soft return, but without kicking in any options that occur at the end of a paragraph. Designers often use them to control undesirable copy breaks, but it’s hazardous for writers to do so because they can create hidden land mines for the layout artist. Depending on the type of project you’re working on, the designers may want soft returns in certain places—to keep long URLs on a single line or to prevent a product name from being hyphenated, for example. A good best practice for writers, however, is to treat these like prescription medication: “use only as directed.”
  • Edit as much as possible before you submit to the design team. No matter how good you are at prepping files for designers, there may be parts of your copy they have to do some work with to get the look the client wants. Once the layout process is underway in earnest, it can be a big hassle to receive a new manuscript file with the instructions to “just replace all the old copy with the new file.” Get it as polished as you can before they go to work. That way your changes are more likely to be minor, which leads us to…
  • Learn the PDF commenting tools. Once a file is in layout form, you’ll probably see the proof in PDF format. Knowing how to mark up a PDF with any editing changes you need will make the designer’s life much easier in several ways. First, it keeps the changes in a digital format that’s easy to send electronically and protect with passwords. Second, the designer can cut and paste changes directly from many types of comments, and can track all of the changes with a checklist view. Both of these tools reduce the chances of mistakes or missed corrections.

Designers: Don’t see your favorite copy peeve here? Tell your writer.

Of course, if you’d like me to be your writer, feel free to tell me all about it.

Cheers,

Tom

  Is great content enough?

symbols_splayedLast month’s newsletter, “What makes perfect customers call,” caused quite a stir among my readers.

Within minutes, several people had sent me some variation of the same question: “Is it enough to publish content each month, or is there more you have to do to get calls like this?”

The not-so-simple answer is “it depends.”

While regular content marketing will rarely be the only factor involved when you make a new client conversion, it reinforces everything else you do to promote your business. A good marketing machine has many components, including face-to-face networking, referrals from existing clients, public speaking gigs, and other channels depending on who you’re trying to connect with.

Sometimes your machine will bring you a pre-sold prospect like the one who called me last month. More often, new contacts aren’t ready to act the first time you meet them. This is where your content strategy comes into play. Stay in touch with these folks regularly through your mailing list and you’ll benefit in several ways:

  1. People you’ve met will receive a regular reminder that you’re out there, which encourages them to act sooner or to prefer you to another provider when they’re ready to buy.
  2. Like the prospect in last month’s story, some of your readers will already feel a sense of connection with you when you’re first introduced. At a recent conference for example, many of the people I met were more relaxed and friendly because they had read my articles.
  3. Prospects who are turned off by your style won’t call you, saving both of you a lot of hassle.

How you craft your content also plays a big part in your success. It’s not enough to post 2,000 words on the Internet each month if you’re simply writing fluff. Here are four extra tips to add to last month’s list to help you get the most from your content:

  1. Your content must be relevant. If what you write has value to your readers, they’ll keep reading. It’s that simple.
  2. Post your content where it will be seen. In addition to this newsletter, I write for several sites that regularly attract the interest of my ideal clients. Much as I love the folks on my house list, the reality is that my business is still getting known. As a result, the majority of my new business currently comes from other sites with more-established reputations. In addition to attracting more eyeballs, you can build credibility by writing for sites or publications that appeal to your best prospects.
  3. Make it easy for prospects to sign up. Whenever you meet someone you want to stay in touch with, ask them if they’d like to be added to your newsletter list. Make it as easy as possible by offering to sign them up yourself, and do it promptly. This small effort on your part will increase your signup rate, and it’s worth doing to get new prospects into your system so that you can stay connected automatically in the future.
  4. Offer an incentive. One way to beat the “good grief, not another newsletter!” response is to give your subscribers something of value right away. Whether it’s a digital download, a free 30-minute consultation, or some other offer, make sure there’s some obvious benefit for your subscribers so that it’s not just about you.

Thanks for reading Currents in 2013—watch for some exciting new changes in 2014! In the meantime, here’s wishing each and every one of you a truly meaningful holiday, no matter what you celebrate.

Cheers,

-Tom

  “I feel like I already know you.”

phone_cordThe voice on the phone gave me all the proof I’ll ever need that content marketing really works:

“I know we’ve never met,” she said, “but I’ve been reading your online articles for a while and I feel like I already know you.”

What followed was easily one of the most relaxed and effortless conversations I’ve ever had with a new client. Before we hung up she said “send me a contract.”

In short, a perfect client had practically fallen into my lap merely because I made a commitment a while back to write a free article once a month. No cold calling. No elevator speech. No sales pitch. And I didn’t spend anything but a bit of time writing.

Ultimately, all I had to do was close the sale…because 95 percent of my marketing work had been done for me. She was already familiar with my samples, my writing style, and my offbeat sense of humor. A colleague she trusted had recommended me. And she matched one of my “preferred client” profiles so closely that I could have written it simply by using the cut-and-paste command to copy her life story.

The call validated five key truths that apply to any content marketing strategy:

  1. Content marketing takes time to get results. Don’t start a newsletter, blog, or podcast and expect the phone to start ringing overnight. Soft-selling vehicles like these build trust slowly, wearing away resistance like water eroding stone. Think of the content you publish today as opening the door to the work you’ll do in six months to a year.
  2. Be yourself. If the personality you put out there isn’t authentic, the people who eventually respond will be attracted to a “you” that isn’t you. This is especially true for freelancers who try to play the “pseudofirm” game or any organization trying to sell an image it doesn’t really embrace.
  3. Write for your ideal customer. My mother reads this newsletter faithfully (love ya mom!), but I don’t write it for her. I have three carefully-researched customer profiles that I’ve developed by interviewing my best clients and other people I’d like to work for. The topics I cover in my free columns are selected to address their needs and interests. Some of my readers don’t match these profiles, but they have friends and colleagues who do and I’ve received some valuable referrals as a result. (Want to develop customer profiles for your own business? One of the best resources out there is Mark O’Brien’s book A Website That Works. While you’re at it, read the whole book.)
  4. Publish on schedule. No matter how great your material is, you’ll be forgotten if you disappear before your perfect buyer is ready. Show up in their inbox at least once a month, preferably at about the same time.
  5. It’s totally worth the effort. You may have to stand firm against the impatience of your boss, your colleagues, your spouse, and even yourself. But if you’re doing it right, all of these objections will be silenced when true believers who’ve already done your selling for you start calling.

Cheers,

-Tom

  Are you writing for humans?

tangled-cablesOne of the gaps in my education is my inability to speak a second language. At various times I’ve worked to learn French, Japanese, and Italian. I had a bit of success with all three, but time pressures from other parts of my life have prevented me from getting beyond “good day”, “which way to the cathedral?”, and “where is the bathroom?”

Nevertheless, as a copywriter I often find that I’m playing the role of “translator” between clients and their target audience.

Professional jargon is sometimes the main thing that needs to be untangled, but more often it’s the age-old problem of gobbledegook. These terms and phrases are the product of fear, spin, or misguided attempts to impress the largest-possible audience.

The inevitable result is copy that sounds like it was written by and for machines. Trouble is, even if you’re a business-to-business guru chasing Fortune 500 companies, you’re ultimately writing for people.

To help you avoid these communication-killers, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more recent dehumanizing buzzwords and what they really mean. Scratch them from any communication intended for human beings.

  • Stakeholders People. (Sometimes “the people working on this project,” but more commonly “the people who sign our paychecks.”)
  • Space A term for “home” or “office” that isn’t hip anymore because too many of your friends are also using it.
  • Core Competency 1) The stuff you’re good at. 2) The stuff you’d rather be doing besides marketing, accounting, and cleaning your office.
  • Deliverables Items on your to-do list.
  • Mainstream “Wow, people are actually buying this stuff!”
  • Solution A product or service. (Yes, Mike Bosworth could be a genius, but most people who read his book don’t seem to get beyond this simple word substitution.)
  • Scaleable Solution A product or service that might still work if we attract new customers.
  • Low-Hanging Fruit Easy sales we should have been closing two years ago.
  • Next-Generation Please buy a new gadget to replace the one you bought last year. Please?
  • “For all your _________________ needs!” We haven’t done any market research.
  • Post-PC Office Environment Our receptionist has an iPad.
  • “We’re the best-kept secret in _________________.” Our marketing sucks.

Best regards,

-Tom

  The perils of “canned” copy

Insurance_MailingsEarlier this month, I received a familiar-looking letter in the mail. No slick sales message—just my name and address printed in understated, professional grey designed to entice me to open the envelope.

“Dear Thomas,” the letter inside began with formal pomp, going on to tell me how I could “bring home $825* in savings” (note the trust-building asterisk, which lead to fine print that essentially said: “well, maybe not, but that’s our best guess”) just by switching all my insurance business over to a Ms. J_________ whom I’ve never met or talked to.

The pitch was lackluster on its own, but two more things made it an even bigger loser—the two other envelopes that arrived the same day from Mr. M_________ and Miss R_________, representatives of the same company who had clearly bought the same package from their corporate masters, complete with the same Mad Libs copy and the same mailing list, helpfully mailed for them on the same day.

These unlucky three are just a few of the latest victims of “canned” copy. As the name implies, it’s kind of like prepackaged food…and about as appetizing. Imagine reading the print equivalent of Muzak from the 1970s and you’ll have a pretty good idea.

Worst of all, they’re not alone. I also get duplicate promotions from printing companies, accountants, realtors, and more. Each has a different rep’s name and address, but they land in my mailbox or inbox at the same time on the same day with surprising regularity.

But sending the same love letter your competitors are sending isn’t the biggest risk you face when you use canned copy. Here are 5 more reasons to shy away from it:

  1. You’ll be boring. Even if your prospects don’t see it anywhere else, the one-size-fits-all approach used by canned copywriters is designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. This “lowest common denominator” approach will make your company sound lackluster and generic.
  2. You’ll sacrifice control. With canned copy, you often don’t get to choose the content. That can lead to problems if your mailing suggests an expertise you don’t have or fails to pick up on hot opportunities you’ve identified in your field.
  3. You can’t react quickly to market trends. Companies that control their own marketing copy can react swiftly to consumer trends. If a particular topic attracts interest and sparks sales, they can shift focus quickly to take advantage of it. With canned copy, you can’t just pick up the phone and ask for a quick change in strategy. Even if your copy provider is responsive to your insights, it could be months before they catch up with your market, costing you valuable time.
  4. You won’t sound like you. Successful brands have a unique “voice” that distinguishes them from competitors. When you publish copy that’s written for multiple users, you don’t stand out—you become part of the background.
  5. Customers can smell it. Copy isn’t just the padding you put between pretty pictures. If it’s not relevant or valuable to your audience, you run the risk of having your entire message ignored no matter how amazing the design looks. Since canned copy is typically designed to appeal to a wider (and vaguer) audience, its chance of being on target for your readers is usually far less likely than if you address what you know your customers are thinking, asking, and worrying about.

Cheers,

-Tom

  Three ways to conquer “creative block”

lab-icnEven if you’re not currently suffering from a lack of inspiration, there’s good news. Not only can “creative block” be cured, you can even prevent it by using a few proactive strategies on a regular basis. The Lab

  Can’t write? Don’t blame the muse.

muse-1Many a writer—professional or otherwise—has complained about their “muse,” that much-maligned maiden of creative inspiration inspired by Greek mythology.

Though reputed to be beautiful, most writers have a love/hate relationship with their muses. In practice, “she” often seems to be something of a shrew—pestering you with inspiration when you’re trying to take a shower or eat dinner in a restaurant (how many great ideas begin on the back of a napkin?), but clamming up entirely when you decide it’s time to write.

Personally, I think writers’ muses get a bad rap—mostly because I hold the unromantic opinion that they don’t exist. I’ll freely admit that inspiration can strike at truly inconvenient times (and no, I won’t elaborate on that one), but if you’re freezing up when writing needs to get done, the problem is most likely you, not the muse.

Here are 7 easy ways to overcome the “fickle muse” problem:

  1. Do your “pre-writing” work—The most common cause of writer’s block is usually “research block,” better known as “not doing your homework.” The first step in any writing project is to know who you’re writing for and what you want to say to them. Once you have that, the muse is likely to get more talkative.
  2. Write every day—Building your skill as a writer is a lot like building a muscle. It responds to regular exercise. If you struggle with writing but want or need to do more of it, make sure you write something each day. It doesn’t even have to be anything for your business. You can keep a journal or just write about whatever comes to mind at the time, as long as you’re translating your thoughts into words.
  3. Try free writing—Free writing is the ultimate “stream of consciousness” exercise, and it can be a great way to brainstorm or focus ideas. Start with a blank sheet of paper, write a word or phrase at the top, and start writing about it. The trick with free writing is not to stop until you’ve filled at least one sheet of paper. You can write more if you’re on a roll, but don’t stop until you’ve made it to the end of that first page. If you get stuck anywhere, write exactly what you’re thinking or the word “write.” You’ll be amazed at some of the stuff that drops out of your head.
  4. Destroy some of what you write—Even if you don’t intend to show your writing to someone else, anxiety about what others might think can dramatically affect your writing. To eliminate this concern entirely, try starting a writing session with the intention of destroying what you write when you’re finished. This can be amazingly liberating, especially when combined with the free writing exercise described above. I prefer to write longhand when I do “destruction” exercises, which I then shred and recycle. If you prefer typing, try 750words.com, which automatically deletes your entries on a regular basis and provides an automated analysis of your mood, typing speed, and other insights.
  5. Write longhand—Just like the rest of us, muses appreciate the hand-written notes most people don’t send anymore. If the blank screen intimidates you, try going low-tech. It will give you the opportunity to slow down and relax as you write.
  6. Accelerate deadlines—Schedule your personal deadlines a day or two before your writing is actually due. It’s easy to cheat when you use this method, but it’s much better not to cheat while knowing that you can. Even if you follow a stricter deadline schedule of your own creation, you won’t feel the pressure as heavily as when the real deadline starts to loom.
  7. Get a reality check—Worried about spelling something wrong or offending someone with your opinion? Plan to show your writing to a friend or colleague before you make it public. Knowing ahead of time that a second set of eyes will review your writing before it’s set in pixels or ink can make it easier to overcome the big hurdle of getting started in the first place. Many professional writers actually go through this process twice: once with “alpha” readers—other pros who can advise them on style, grammar, and other details of the craft—and “beta” readers—people who fit the profile of the target audience as closely as possible. Unlike alpha readers, beta readers don’t need to know much about writing. It’s more important that they resemble members of your target audience and point out places where your writing either loses their attention or doesn’t work for them.

Best regards,

-Tom

  5 reasons you shouldn’t do your own marketing

Just because you do marketing for a living doesn’t mean you have to do your own marketing.

marketing-quandaryA lot of my bread-and-butter work is content marketing for a set of clients that might seem counter-intuitive…other marketing companies.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, many businesses I interact with—from solopreneurs to full-scale agencies—are increasingly outsourcing their own promotion. Every month I work with marketing consultants, graphic designers, and even several other writers, all of whom are handing off some portion of their self-promotion to me.

These folks aren’t abdicating their creative voice…they’re very particular about what they “say” when I ghost-write in their voices, and are quick to make changes when needed. Yet many of them tell me month after month how much the collaboration helps them sound “even more like themselves.”

Here are five great reasons why they do it, and why you might consider following their example:

  1. You’re busy. Marketing any organization right takes time, which many agencies don’t have. Rather than overloading your staff with extra tasks—especially if you’re a staff of one—it’s often more efficient and cost-effective to put an outsider on the job.
  2. Promotional writing isn’t where you want to spend your time. Many of my clients are talented designers who hate to write. Great copy helps them look and sound good. Some of the writers I work with are very skilled at their craft but don’t write marketing copy, which is very different from fiction or editorial copy.
  3. You’ll keep your marketing machine on schedule. It’s easy to run a content-focused marketing plan when there’s not much else to do. But when you’ve got deadlines for clients who pay well, the last thing you want to do is take time away from that work to do your own self-promotion. Having someone else handle your marketing schedule keeps everything humming when you get busy, and helps make sure that you stay busy by promoting your services while you focus on paying gigs.
  4. You’ll get an objective perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in your needs and motivations when you write about yourself. An outsider is more likely to think like your prospects and write stuff that takes what they want and need into account.
  5. You won’t have to be shy. Creative people are often afraid that saying great stuff about themselves will be perceived as boasting. Having someone else craft the message that tells the world how great you are short-circuits this inhibition by demonstrating that at least one other person believes the power is in you.

Cheers,

-Tom